Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
By Anne Tyler
Read September 2017
I selected this book for a book discussion with the assignment “any book with food in the title”. I struggled finding one and settled on something I hope close enough—you eat food in a restaurant…. I also selected this book because I read two of her novels in the distant past and thought this would be a great time to revisit this author.
As with most of Tyler’s work this book focuses on a particular family and relationships within it. The reader is first introduced to Pearl Tull as she is dying with son, Ezra, at her side. The reader learns that Pearl was surprised she wanted “extra children” after she had her first son, Cody, late in life (in 1931). She was married (to the surprise of many including herself) at age 30 to Beck Tull, age 24 and a travelling salesman. Pearl and Buck had three children and moved frequently from town to town as Beck had “invites” to new sales territories for the Tanner Corporation. “One Sunday night in 1944, he said he didn’t want to stay married. They were sending him to Norfolk, he said; but he thought it best if he went alone. ….”We’ll sleep on it,” she told him. But he said, “It’s tonight I’m going.” And he was gone. We learn that Pearl stays in the rented row house in Baltimore with the three children, Cody (14), Ezra (11) and Jenny (9). She never tells them their father has left (he travelled frequently for weeks at a time) and they never asked her about him even after they realize he’s been gone for a very long time and may not return. She takes a job as a cashier to provide for them as Beck sends only a small amount of money monthly. Chapter 1 gives a short glimpse of Pearl’s perspective on their family and life and ends as she “was borne away to the beach, where three small children ran toward her, laughing, across the sunlit sand.” Chapters 2-9 explore the three children and their perspectives on events in their lives and on their fellow family members. Pearl’s voice shows up during these chapters as well. The final chapter draws us back to Pearl’s death, the gathering of Cody and Jenny and their families from their homes back to Baltimore, and Ezra’s attempt to have a family dinner after the funeral.
Tyler told an interviewer that her work is all about the characters; plot is secondary. That approach is evident here. The first and last chapters serve as bookends to the exploration of mother Pearl and her children Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. The family has little interaction with others. Pearl and Buck moved frequently and friendships were never pursued. Pearl focused on making the rental safe, secure, and extremely orderly. (Note “homey” is not part of the description). Stair repair, gutter cleaning, clean clothing neatly arranged in the cardboard dressers and closets—that was her focus. This focus doesn’t change after she takes a job where she serves the public daily but never engages with it. Interestingly, oldest son Cody, who is extremely focused on “beating” favorite son, Ezra, becomes an efficiency engineer who travels the country bringing order and efficiency to various companies’ operations sites. His continuous travel makes it easy for him to avoid building friendships with others but he is adamant that his wife and son always travel with him as he goes site to site. Jenny, the youngest child, becomes a successful pediatrician who is too busy to interact with those outside the family. She has severe challenges developing meaningful relationships with any of her family including mother, siblings, husbands, and her own children. Ezra, who Pearl acknowledges is her favorite, is the only child to stay in Baltimore, and in fact remains in the row house with his mother and cares for her as she loses sight and health. He does develop external relationships, becoming like a second son to the owner of the restaurant at which he begins working in high school. He visits her in a very devoted manner while she slowly dies and even develops a relationship with a foreign family who visits their dying family member in the same facility. Despite his mother’s plans for him to be a teacher, he eventually becomes partner in and then owner of the restaurant. As it becomes soley his, he fervently evolves its nature in a somewhat chaotic manner to a format focused on cooking “what people felt homesick for”. He alone pursues a relationship with and among his family by repeatedly trying to provide a family dinner that brings the family together for a whole meal.
I appreciate the book’s deep appreciation for the remarkable but not uncommon outcome that children experience vastly different childhoods while living with the same family members, under the same roof, eating the same food, and attending the same family outings. I appreciate that the book presents four complex characters for whom you feel empathy even while you can’t understand them. They are characters not caricatures. They are not simple and they are not grotesque. They are real people. Pearl and each of her children “make it” in that they are financially self-sufficient, have respectable occupations, and are not obviously outside the mainstream of society. But all face significant challenges in figuring out how to deal with situations they can’t control, how to deal with family they don’t understand and how to interact with the greater society with which they feel limited connection and with which they have limited understanding. The author doesn’t tell us why this is so; she leaves us to consider that for ourselves. Thus I recommend this as a straightforward, unassuming read that packs a whallop.